Friday, November 19, 2010

The Next Generation, Season 1: Where No One Has Gone Before

Airdate: October 26, 1987
5 of 176 produced
5 of 176 aired


Instructed by Starfleet to allow a propulsion specialist named Kosinski to alter their engines, the Enterprise embarks on a "sleigh ride" that takes them not only beyond the boundaries of the Milky Way, but beyond the boundaries that separate space, time, and thought. It turns out Kosinksi has been taking credit for the seemingly magical powers of the Traveler, a native of the mysterious Tau Alpha C. The problem: the Traveler is dying, and the Enterprise is stuck far beyond any point of return under their own power. Will they be able to escape the miasma of 'thought-space' in time, and what lies behind the Traveler's interest in Wesley?

"Wesley, you and other P.Y.T.s like you are the reason I travel..." 


Matthew: To me, this is one of the most "Roddenberry" episodes of the first season, and of TNG in general. It is co-written by revered Trek novelist Diane Duane (the mind behind such great yarns as "Spock's World," "Dark Mirror," and the set of "Rihannsu" stories that finally do the Romulans justice) and TV producer Michael Reaves. Anyway, although some of this story is hijacked by character work, specifically the "Acting Ensign Wesley" storyline, the story as a whole is an artful way of performing this task while telling a good sci-fi tale at the same time. I love stories that discuss the limits of human technological abilities (well, maybe not "Threshold"), the edges of the universe, alien superbeings of the non-swishy variety, and metaphysics. Well, this story has it all if that's what you're looking for.

Kevin: I agree. There's a lot going on in this episode, but the story never spins out of control, which I think it easily could have done. I like the effort put into Kosinksi's character in terms of writing. It's irony on a grand scale that a man who thinks so highly of himself would actually achieve something great only to learn he had nothing to do with it. It's a nice counter-point to Wesley's potential paired with his (at least in this episode) humility. The moment when the Traveler asks for his help is genuinely touching. Given TOS' over-reliance on visiting officials who were full of hot air, it was nice to see one with some depth, and even a bit of an arc.

Matthew: The coolest, creepiest scene in this episode for me has always been Picard with his "maman." The heavenly backlight, the wizened old woman, dressed in funereal black lace, talking about death... it puts a little shiver up my spine just thinking about it. Picard falling into space from the turbolift was great, too. In general, this story was a great structure to give us a peek at the fantasies or fears of some of our characters. Worf pets his targ, Yar relives her harrowing colony days, and a bunch of extras dance ballet, play violins, deal with fires, etc. I kind of wish we had gotten more of the main cast's visions. The Jack Crusher scene from "Violations" would have made this episode a 5 beyond all question. Maybe Riker and Troi could envision the other abandoning them? Geordi could be rendered irreparably blind? The Data question is never addressed, either. The possibilities are tantalizing and possibly endless, and it's a shame we didn't get to see them played out. Something about the pacing in this episode feels slow. I can't put my finger on it. I think it is the sickbay scenes, they seem to drag a bit, and the lighting is a bit sparse, leading to a longish sequence without a lot of visual interest.

Kevin: I always felt bad for the violist and the dancer who got pulled out of their fantasies. They seemed really happy. I always wondered if their getting back was a result of actual travel or just that the act of going to warp focused their thoughts, which was really how they got home. Dorothy can't click her heels three times to get back to Kansas until she believes that that will actually work type of thing. When I first saw the episode, I wondered if they were even back at all. Maybe everything after is just their shared delusion created in the thoughtspace.

Matthew: For all the crap Wil Wheaton/Wesley received over his special place in the series, I think this story introduced the concept well. Comparing him to Mozart is a great way of indicating his talents, and should go at least some way to excusing a certain measure of precociousness. I was never a Wesley hater, personally. But if I were, I think this episode would have softened the irritation somewhat.

Kevin: It's sad, but Wil Wheaton got a lot of heat for problems that were not his fault. Everyone, go Netflix Stand By Me, and you'll see even really, really young Wil Wheaton had some solid acting talent. I was generally annoyed by the Wesley character, and how he was used, but that's more the fault of the directors and writers who don't know how to write for child actors. Wil Wheaton recounts in his memoirs how one director would literally lead him by the arm rather than just say where he wanted him to stand. It's a problem that will afflict Jake Sisko as well. I will have a lot to say about how annoying the character is when we get to "The Battle" and how crappy the writing for him is in "Datalore," but here, the character is largely successful, because it's the time his character feels the least like Rodenberry's Mary Sue that he is.

Matthew:  I'd like to take this opportunity to point out some oddities. Picard says Kosinski will try out different warp intermix formulae. Different than 1:1? I know that "Coming of Age" won't happen for a few episodes, but it is in the same season, after all. Editing, people! The same goes for the "retroactive course" that Geordi calls out when they attempt their return, 300 something by 200 something, if memory serves. Wouldn't a retroactive course always be 180 mark 180? We get this explanation in "Datalore," quite soon after this episode. Yet again, we have the nebulous chief engineer situation, with Argyle being referred to as "one of our chief engineers." In the intermediate part of their trip, the Enterprise is placed 2.7 million light years away from home. Then, it is estimated that they would take 300 years to get home - this is an increase of almost a thousandfold of the speed level rubric that Voyager gives us (1,000 ly per year of travel). It kind of calls into question why they couldn't have charted more of the galaxy by now. In the final stages of their journey, they get a reading of their position as 1 billion light years away. I have a difficult time seeing how this would be possible. For one thing, the effect seemed to render distant stars invisible to the Enterprise, and this seems the only possible means of triangulation. For another, being a billion light years away means that the pulsars and cepheid variable stars, if visible at all, would either be turned off or not turned on at all (they only last 10-100 million years), or would be so far from their recognized positions as to make the triangulation impossible. Finally, I just have to ask: could a "nonsense" mathematician like Kosinski really get this far? This story detail seems hard to justify in such an enlightened and scientifically advanced culture. Doesn't peer review exist in the 24th century?

Kevin: I noticed the speed scale problem as well. I tend to give a bigger pass to numerical inconsistencies, as I feel that numbers are put in largely as placeholders. It's always nice when they put the effort in to be consistent, but when the writing team is still in flux as it is this season, I'm not going to get too excited about it. Now the one thing I have always wondered. The headings. Are they relative to the ship or absolute to the galaxy? Are they context dependent? It seems that Picard can say "Set a course 271 mark 334," and everyone goes, without first consulting a sextant, "The Neutral Zone?!?!" Not even Picard had to look something up to give the heading. But in a battle situation, wouldn't movement relative to the enemy be more pertinent, and wouldn't an absolute system of galactic navigation be unusable at that scale? Come to heading 343, plus a very very little bit? It's not disabling or even distracting; it's just the nerdy stuff I like to ponder. 


Matthew: Erik Menyuk, who was one of the finalists for the Data role, has an otherworldly quality in this performance that really suited the character. Having that quality is very important when you're tasked with "seeming" mysterious, on a show that can't really spend a lot of time showing the audience that you are. I wish we had seen a lot more of this actor, whether in this role or not. I can imagine plenty of Traveler vs. Q-style stories, similar to Guinan's imbroglio with Q later on. Speaking of guest stars, I also thought that Stanley Kamel did a good job as Kosinski. He was simultaneously bombastic and vulnerable. The character had a humanity and a sympathy, even before it was revealed that he was a pathetic fraud. 

Kevin: The other-worldliness of the Traveler occasionally played on screen like he was going to ask Wesley to come see the back of his really cool van or that he has pictures of Wesley in nothing but his cable-knit 80s sweater. I'm certain it wasn't intentional. and maybe it's that it's hard to imagine an adult showing such a degree of interest in a teenager without reading something into it, but still, their interaction played oddly at a few points. And I whole-heartedly agree about Stanley Kamel. I always liked him in anything I saw him in, from Melrose Place (big surprise, I watched Melrose Place) or his role as Tony Shaloub's psychiatrist in Monk. He sadly passed away in 2008.

Matthew: I think Wil Wheaton had a very natural, unaffected quality in this episode that worked. Child and teen actors sometimes feel the extremely irritating need to PROJECT in every scene, like "Gee Whiz, look how ACTOR-ISH I am!" Kind of like the most annoying High School Drama club you can imagine. Well, Wil Wheaton never does this. He really just seems like he is on-screen who he is off-camera. Whether this is supreme ability or dumb luck, it works, and I've always liked his performances for it. And he holds up well to the mostly unwarranted and generally unremitting abuse heaped upon him to this point by his fellow crew members. 

Production Values

Matthew: The special effects were middling to good. Some of the propulsion effects were not great, but the eerie backdrop of thought-space was effective. The effect with Picard being sucked into space out of the turbolift looked really good for green-screen optical work, too. The "phasing" effect was not perfect, but it got the job done. As far as sets go, we get the pool table in engineering, which is a nice addition. Sickbay has not yet reached its final look, and is the worse for it. We also are introduced to the music cue we'll hear at length in "When the Bough Breaks," and it's one I've always liked.

Kevin: I always wondered what those groups of dots that looked like transparent dice were supposed to be. The visual of Picard stepping into space was really well achieved and it still freaks me out. I also liked the video effects of the warp field. It was well done for its time, and it adds a dimension for nerds to ponder as to how warp speed actually works.

Matthew: By the way, you can see where the Klingon Targ peed on the bridge carpet. Also, this is the introduction of the music cue which is going to be featured heavily in "When The Bough Breaks." It works well in this episode.


Matthew: I think this episode succeeds both as good science fiction (exploring the effects that radical speeds and diminished boundaries between thought and matter would have on humans) and as good Star Trek (good character drama against a backdrop of wild exploration). I can't say I remember feeling dubious about TNG while the first season was airing (I was ten, after all), but if I were, I think this episode would have assuaged my fears. Even in season one, TNG has the ability to delight and amaze. OK, all of this said, there is a bit of pacing sluggishness, also typical of many season one voyages, and there was a missed opportunity to see into the other characters' thoughts, which could have alleviated the pacing. So this is a high 4 for me. I love it every time I watch it, but it could have been just a little bit greater.

Kevin: The only real problem in the episode is the sluggish pacing that Matt mentioned, otherwise, there is a lot here to recommend it. I don't love it quite as much as Matt does, but I think that's more personal preference than an objective assessment of quality. A few more scenes of the other characters' visions would have provided some additional character building moments that almost all great Trek is built on. But overall, I will agree with the 4, for a total of 8. If nothing else, this episode, more than any other, except Encounter at Farpoint, would be the first solid sign that TNG had its own stories to tell and could actually carry the Trek banner.


  1. First let me say KUDOS for the photo and relevant comment! LMAO

    Second, I'm really enjoying taking in your observations about these episodes. I think it works well particularly due to Matt's devotion to intimate detail combined with Kevin's ability to put that detail into eloquent perspective.

    I agree that this is the first episode that I couldn't just walk away from the show for. Had the prior episodes been my first contact with TNG I may not have made it this far.

    I, too, am irritated by the inconsistencies in velocities/timelines cited throughout the shows. But as far as establishing being a BILLION light years away, you wouldn't use standard celestial navigation. Considering that the Andromeda Galaxy is only 2.5 million light years away, you would have to triangulate (though prolly only approximately) using positions of galaxies, not individual stars.

  2. HD highlights from the Blu-Ray:
    1. Wesley's cable-knit sweater rendered in excruciatingly beautiful detail,
    2. Picard's Maman, with all her doilies and lace,
    3. Lack of compositing degradation during the Traveler's phasing

    1. I was hoping that the thoughtspace would be more detailed, but apparently the original effect was somewhat fuzzy

    Also, in response to GP: Cepheid variables are how we compute the distance of galaxies, since they all have the same brightness. Without them, we'd have little idea based on relative galactic brightness and size how far the galaxies are (and thus, how big the universe is)

    1. This is one I saw in the theater on Monday. I agree I was hoping for a tad more detail in the transition, but the starscape in both M3 and the edge of the universe was stunning.

      And as for the sweater, yep. You can make out every single crinkle in whatever hideous artificial fabric that thing was made out of. It was awesome and awful.

  3. One more highlight - the level of detail in the Yar colony scene.